By Allison McWilliams (’95), Ph.D., Assistant VP, Mentoring and Alumni Personal & Career Development, Wake Forest University

Woman standing/balancing on narrow log

Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash

What does it mean to “define your balance” as a working professional? What does a balanced life look like for you? When you think about work, and life, are those two separate roles, or do they blend together in some way?

In the first few weeks of 2019, two pieces appeared in mainstream media and discussed the realities and the implications of today’s “always on” life. The first, from Buzzfeed, How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation, explores how various systemic issues have created a generation who is drowning in debt, unfulfilled promises, never-ending to-do lists, and lives performed for one another and the world through social media. The second, from the New York Times, Why Are Young People Pretending to Love Work, explores the exploitative nature of today’s workplace, which pushes for the “hustle” above all else: “For congregants of the Cathedral of Perpetual Hustle, spending time on anything that’s nonwork related has become a reason to feel guilty.”

We have entered into the age of the “side hustle” and the “gig economy,” where anyone with an idea and some initiative can earn some extra income (and perhaps pursue a passion project) on the weekends and at night. We celebrate these people as go-getters who are using their talents and strengths to innovate and disrupt traditional organizations, industries, and delivery-models.

But instead of celebrating, it may be worth interrogating what working a full-time job plus a part-time job is doing to people’s abilities to actually live.  As the author of the Buzzfeed piece points out, the very efficiencies that we have built into our lives through technological innovation under the guise of “finding more time,” have just given us more time to work. No longer does it seem acceptable to strive for balance. Instead, one must strive for achievement, for maximum productivity, for greater and greater measures of success. But if the goal post is constantly moving, is it ever possible to get there?

The problem with balance is that it implies equality: I will spend fifty percent of my time working and fifty percent of my time living. But, of course, we know that’s not true or possible. No one’s life is quite so neat and tidy. Indeed, we all go through seasons; in some you will be more focused on work, and in some more focused on those outside-of-work pursuits whether they be family, or hobbies, or travel or whatever else fills you up. But no matter what season you currently are in, what’s important is that you take ownership for defining what balance means to you, and for how you are pursuing it.

Consider taking the following steps towards defining YOUR balance:

Define your values. No matter what you’re working on it always comes back to your core values, because these are the things that define who you are and what you hold sacred. What matters the most to you? What are your guideposts for decision-making? What are your non-negotiables? Try to identify no more than your top five (you might use a tool like the Life Values Inventory to help you with this work). Then, think about how those things align with what you make time for in your life. For example, family and creativity (specifically, for me, writing) will always be in my top five. I know that my life is most out-of-balance when I am not making time for those things.

Acknowledge your realities. Not many of us are fully in control of our lives at every moment. Unless you’re independently wealthy, you do still have to show up to work every day in order to pay your bills. And if you have chosen to live in an area of the country with a high cost of living, and if your 8-5 job doesn’t pay you enough to cover your rent and put food on the table, then, yes, you may have to look for a side hustle to cover living expenses. The question is, is that lifestyle in alignment with your values? Get honest with yourself about the realities of the life that you want to live, and the life that you currently are living, and what steps you are willing to take to close that gap.

Set your boundaries. Finally, defining your balance means setting the boundaries that you need to set both personally and professionally. Are you willing to be available to your boss and co-workers twenty-four hours of the day? Are there times in your week that you can hold sacred and not allow to be scheduled over? I do my best to work away from the office one day a week, so that I have dedicated meeting-free time to complete tasks and projects that require focus. That’s a boundary that I have set both for myself and with others through my calendar. Which boundaries are you willing to commit to, in order to start owning your life?

Define your values. Acknowledge your realities. Set your boundaries. These aren’t the keys to a perfect life. But they are three critical steps you can take, today, to start to own the life that you want to live.